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Women-Only Adventure Travel

Take a Female-Friendly Adventure Vacation
by Laura Bly, USA Today

Until she snatched a paddle and hit the beach on this uninhabited island off Mexico's Baja California peninsula, 62-year-old Lyla Fuller was terrified to put her face in the water, much less intentionally capsize a kayak in the chilly clutches of the Sea of Cortez.

But with a dozen new gal-pals cheering her on, Fuller manages to do both — emerging from a "wet exit" drill in sputtering triumph.

So what if she won't be signing up for scuba lessons anytime soon? On this women-only kayaking and whale-watching trip sponsored by Bozeman, Montana-based AdventureWomen, the semi-retired Salt Lake City real estate broker and her comrades are embracing the motto on the button she'll sport all week: "You're Never Too Old to Have a Happy Childhood."

They're also fueling a burgeoning segment of the USA's $100 billion-a-year adventure-travel industry. Forget the whiskers and whiskey stereotype: According to the Adventure Travel Society, a Saluda, Colo., organization that racks this specialty, the typical adventure traveler is now a 47-year-old woman, with females both planning and participating in at least half of all commercial trips.

Most of the 50 million women booking those trips are hiking, climbing and paddling with men at their sides. Despite Survivor's equal-opportunity challenges and Charlie's Angels' message that a buff babe can skydive or kick-box her way out of any fix, dozens of women-only adventure travel companies (and several mainstream tour operators) are taking a different approach. 

They're wooing baby boomers who won't eat rats and can't fit into a size six wetsuit -- and who don't want to spend a week in the great outdoors surrounded by testosterone.

"A lot of people assume we're all either militant feminists or lesbians," says Becky Bowlsbey of SacredPlay Nature Tours, a 3-year-old company that leads women-only hiking trips in southern Arizona. In fact, says Bowlsvey, most of her tour participants simply want to enjoy nature (and confront their what's-that-noise-in-the-tent fears) in a supportive, non-competitive atmosphere.

On adventure trips that involve learning skills, "women and men have very different styles and physical abilities," said Marion Marbury of Adventures in Good Company, the Afton, Minnesota-based all-women's outfit she launched two years ago.

"My first rock-climbing lessons were with men, who could just haul themselves up using pure strength. I was self-conscious and felt like a lousy climber," said Marbury. "A few years later I had the opportunity to do a lot of climbing with other women, and became (more) competent. ...Now I enjoy climbing with both men and women."

Rock climbing isn't on the itinerary during AdventureWomen's week-long Baja jaunt, but wielding a paddle is — without a game of "who can get there the fastest."

"Going on a kayaking trip with a bunch of 35-year-old guys trying to prove themselves would be a fate worse than death," jokes Linda Emery, 56, of Tujunga, Calif., the first night, balancing a mug of lime-laced margaritas with a plate of chicken tamales prepared by the camp's all-male crew. "Here, you can quit early if you want to, without any criticism or judgment."

That's just what Fuller and her kayak partner choose to do, waving gleefully form their perches on a "chase boat" that joins the squadron of double kayaks moseying along the starkly spectacular shoreline of Isla Danzante.

But most of the women, several of whom had never kayaked before this trip, willingly endure sore arms and creaky knees for an 8-mile journey across the mirror-calm Sea of Cortez. They watch greedy frigate birds try to steal fish from the brown pelicans that had dive-bombed to get them. They snorkel above scarlet starfish and shy lobsters and slosh ashore for a well-deserved break of cookies and tortilla-wrapped tuna.

And they all marvel at the group's matriarch, Nancy Meitzler. At 76, the retired nurse for Norwich, Connecticut, responds to her 47-year-old kayak buddy's request to take a break with a chipper "you go right ahead, I'll keep paddling" — and exudes a zest for life that puts Mia Hamm to shame.

The next day, neither wind nor waves cooperate, forcing a jaunt to a remote hot springs. Though the February sun is a already low when the women arrive, the resulting chill is banished by the warm and murky waters of the rock-rimmed seaside pool.

After taking cerveza orders, the group's 24-year-old resident guide, Carlos Dajon, makes a graceful exit — leaving, in his wake, a magical hour of giggles, contented sighs and a few raunchy jokes.

Of course, Oprah-esque bonding isn't the only dynamic on this women-only expedition. The youngest participant, a 35-year-old mother of three whose 62-year-old mom bought her the trip as a birthday present and came along for the ride, spends much of the week repairing her rapidly eroding nail polish and dreaming of chlorinated pools and umbrella drinks.

No one complains about the bathroom facilities, which turn out to be two scrupulously clean portable toilets ensconced in private and particularly scenic areas of camp.

AdventureWomen's policy of rotating roommates every two nights hits a snag when one group member turns out to be a snorer.

A few women grumble about having to pitch their own tents, and the mantra they've all been advised to memorize — "sand is my friend" — threatens to erode after repeatedly crunching said friend between one's teeth.

Tensions evaporate, however, when the Adventure Women gang boards skiffs in Bahia Magdalena. It's the largest of three Pacific Coast lagoons that serve as winter mating and birthing grounds for the California gray whale, a species that migrates 12,000 miles each year between Mexico and Alaska.

Though Magdalena doesn't typically attract the "friendlies" that approach whale watching boats for human contact, the entrance to the lagoon is teeming with whales when the women arrive.

Within an hour, they've spotted dozens of vapor plumes, tail lobs and "spy hops," where the creatures poke their heads vertically out of the water for a better view. 

And, their last day in Magdalena, they see the Pink Floyd. 

The Pink Floyd (aka "the Pink"), explains guide Lissa Fleming, refers to the 6-foot-long, bright pink penis of the school-bus-sized male gray whale. While it's not unusual to witness such mating behaviors as tail slapping and fluke waving, glimpsing the Pink in all its unfurled glory is a rare treat, indeed. 

But not this morning.

To Fleming's delighted amazement, the groups encounters several high-spirited couplings and no less than four Pink Floyds.

"It must be all these female hormones," says Fuller, the overgrown kid with the fear of water who'd braved a dunking in the Sea of Cortez several days, and innumerable laughs, earlier.

It's as good a theory as any, and a bonus the awestruck women awash in Bahia Magdalena's "whale soup" will never forget.


Copyright 2001, USA Today. Reprinted with permission.